Dignity Amongst the Dysgenic
A Review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity
By Richard Greenhorn
What is the purpose of the underclass? Why do they exist? More than that—why are they allowed to exist? We are told by philosophers that there are virtues to being poor, and Our Lord touts their virtues. But do the poor exist for nothing more than this—to give the affluent a reason for moral reflection? To serve the point of parables as a kind of foil to Dives?
Historically, the question has always had an evident answer. Someone had to dig the ditches, shovel the manure, plant the crops. Yet in the present day, these jobs are now either unnecessary, done by machines, or performed by immigrants. And so the poor are unnecessary: Too expensive to hire for menial tasks, too dim to run the machines that replace them, and yet human nonetheless—and therefore hard to exterminate. Recent debates about reparations show that Americans are obsessed still with slavery—funny, given the unique feature of our era is that technology has replaced the brute manpower the poor supplied, the prospect of acquiring human chattel can hold no appeal to power. In the modern era, the poor are not even worthy of being slaves.
I couldn’t help contemplating this while reading Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Through the course of it, we encounter a diverse array of pathetic specimens of the underclass, all striving for and (spoiler alert) failing to achieve that eponymous goal. The book is a mix of photo collage and slice-of-life reporting from a host of unpalatable locations: Somali-occupied Lewiston, Maine, race-riot scarred Cairo, Illinois, post-industrial (and riot-scarred) Cleveland, Milwaukee, Gary, Indiana… The book is already being touted as one of the best testaments to the Trump reaction, and critics of the technocratic order as diverse as lefty plagiarist Angela Nagel, technoliberal doll Liz Bruenig, and “America’s Senator” Tom Cotton are found heaping praise on book’s back cover. The book has been given an outsized position as critique of the neoliberal order. The question is whether this is deserved.
The stories and pictures in the book are supposed to be those “many would rather not see” (according to Patrick Deneen, from the flap). But this is rubbish. Since at least Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, affluent Americans have loved taking surveys of the poor. Those hallowed and vacuous legalisms of equality and democracy are manured by the mire of the slums. Even these pathetic dregs are equal to me! the rich man can say. Republican idealism gains vigor near so much tangible misery. Wallowing in this misery of others is one of the few times Americans are capable of self-reflection.
Whenever an affluent man sets out to write about the poor, it almost always results in—and requires—some kind of autobiography. Without this, the question must always linger in the reader’s mind: Why is this man spending his time around the dregs of the underclass? We learn, in the course of Dignity that its author Chris Arnade is former Southerner, a Wall Street apostate, a godless respecter of creeds, and a wannabe everyman. The entire book is an expression of guilty conscience: That a man who used his technical genius to bleed his fellow man for every last cent should turn his attention and camera onto the poor in their unending decay.
Maybe it’s my own firmly middle-class background that leaves me uninspired by this. One of the telltales of economic status is how interesting you find poverty to be. I suppose I was born close enough to the margin to realize that poverty is not inherently interesting at all. Every animal is poor, and every man has the capacity to die like a dog. It is only the story of how a man got there, whether by pride or by fate, that can hold any sane person’s interest.
Truly, only the rich could be so stupid as to believe there is something interesting about being poor. The poor themselves dream about being rich and powerful, and for good reason. Wealth is a kind of potentiality, and from such potentiality all our dreams and aspirations spring. The poor drink up stories of our ruling classes, of our politicians, movie stars, and bankers. The poor have no use for poverty; only the rich do, as a means of self-reflection. Arnade complains that the poor are “stigmatized.” But of course they are. It is like complaining that lepers are stigmatized.
Arnade’s POV is humdrum and boring. “Education” still seems to hold currency with him as it does with almost every bourgeois. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is nowadays trite advice, but “get your diploma” is the height of wisdom. Says the author: “If we were the front row, they were the back row… The students who didn’t take to education, because it wasn’t necessarily their thing or because they had far too many obligations—family, friends, problems large and small—to focus on studying.” Arnade later talks about “the vast difference in the quality of our schools” as a reason for the underclass’s failure. He overlooks the best explanation for why certain people fail at school: Because they are stupid.
Contrast this with another chronicler of the underclass, Charles Murray in his recent Coming Apart. Education is central to Murray’s story of late 20th Century decline as well, but he does not fall back to hokum about the poor just needing library cards to rescue themselves from the slums. No, Murray knows that, more than ever, the upper classes are a kind of cognitive elite. A high school student with a high IQ in Topeka or Biloxi almost invariably heads to a college with other high-IQers, and tends to marry a fellow high-IQ individual. Our entire system centers on ensuring high-IQers are able to find someone to do the NYT Sunday crossword in bed with. And barring some attempt to level the field for the stupid, the future is the clever pairing with the clever and begetting clever children, all while the dumb pair with like and keep getting dumber. In IQ terms, we are seeing the development of a great divergence, of a departure of the Eloi from the Morlocks.
There is nothing so provocative in Arnade. The author’s wisdom is conventional wisdom, and his centrism is cloying in the way that liberal newspapermen used to be. Arnade fills his pages with contrasting images, the MAGA-hatted white man next to the black man showing off his “Thug Life” naval tattoo, the youngster with the Confederate flag in the back of his truck next to a fat Mexican woman with a Clinton/Kaine sign on her front lawn. Liberal pablum abounds in these pages: The history of blacks is one of “forced and coerced movement.” Arnade profiles a “transgender woman,” i.e. a man, and sees nothing bizarre in the existence of a niqab’d Somali in Maine. Arnade shows his conservative side by not being a scumbag to conservatives—failing to harass conservatives in 2019 is an anti-liberal act. Yet through it all, Arnade is not attempting to engage the mind, only the heartstrings. And if the reader is not swayed by the pathos of pages of whoring, doping, and strange worship, he realizes there is just not much there.
Again, maybe it is my middle-class prejudice, but Arnade’s attempt to be an unjudging “average guy,” unconstrained by ties of race, religion, or class simply does not bear fruit. His objectivity—striving to view the underclass not as workers, or moral beings, or even as a class—gives them no characteristics beyond the monotonous animal truth: Life is painful, and men will try to ease their pain. Yet much of the behavior portrayed is vile in the deepest way: Drug use, prostitution, cursing, gluttony, avarice, effeminacy. I would almost prefer to read a book about the poor written by someone who hates the poor, or at least someone who holds the poor to account as the moral actors they are.
Arnade’s everyman perspective is unnatural. It has appreciation for what is animal in us, little for what makes us men, almost none for what actually makes one a “child of God,” as the struggling whore he profiles wants to be described. Wittingly or no, the men and women in these pages are children of darkness. Yet Arnade is basically saccharine, and falls back too often to trite phrases which serve to alienate us from his subjects: Classism, racism, intolerance. Such pseudoscientific terms divorce us from the anger and contempt we ought to feel towards these pathetic subjects and the system that has so degraded them. Our hatred would be more profitable to the poor than any learning.
“Our lives used to be centered around work and church. Now it is centered around McDonald’s and church,” says one woman. McDonald’s and Walmart play a large part in the tale Arnade wants to tell, and I wish he pursued them further. McDonald’s, as that quote suggests, has replaced many of the day-to-day elements of culture, and Walmart has done the same to commerce. Liberal screeching about the nefariousness of these corporate behemoths would actually be better than any attempts to treat them objectively. Yes, Arnade is trying to tell a story to affluent urbanites who go to Walmart only to pick up day laborers. But the story of a debauched race and nation demands more than this.
For all the time he has spent amongst the dregs, Arnade does not seem to understand how bad it really is. Julian Huxley, writing on behalf of the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization), two years after the death of Third Reich, could tout the benefits of radical eugenics policy. A century before, Dickens and Marx well understood that the poor were in danger of being mowed down by the blades of capital and Benthamism. Arnade has no right to adopt gee-shucks surprise in the land of Oxycontin and Planned Parenthood. If my talk of extermination above seems inappropriate, know that the oligarchs do not feel the same. The apolitical and amoral Arnade is chronicling the seventh inning of a political and moral struggle, yet he refuses to acknowledge the long game being played.
The outward appearances he catalogues are merely symptoms of a moral festering that will likely never be cured. The poor are obsolete, and nothing will change this outside of societal collapse. Their moribund cultural habits are nearly gone, replaced by Hollywood pap—Marvel movies, NFL games and the like. They are being aborted and contracepted out of existence; their children are being ensnared by drug companies, transformed into sodomites and transgenders; the constant barrage of Facebook sociality dulls any notion of an immutable and distinct soul; the limitless titillation of screens and cheap food rots any stoicism or sense that this life is a cross to be borne rather than cheap coin to be bartered. Our current political and societal malaise is not a bug, but a clever way to turn mass murder into mass suicide.
A Christian can will the good of his neighbor, and even of the underclass. But without some objective, solid reason for why others should care for the welfare of those above and below him, any notion of “Christian society” is impossible, mere words. Slavery is distasteful to all Christian sense, but it is better that one’s neighbor be a slave than superfluous. The slave can be treated cruelly, but has an objective existence that requires some respect for his welfare and innate rights. Modern man has a salad of rights but no objective existence requiring those rights be respected. If love has concrete intellectual meaning, if it is willing the good of another rather than puerile sentiment, then the material conditions of a society must be Christian to accomplish the Christian state’s purpose.
Forget Arnade’s calls for dignity. Arnade would be most Christian if he proposed the rich hire more of them to clean their toilets; even more if they bought a few of them as slaves. Would these people be better off as slaves? Of course, the poor man was infinitely better as a slave—he had objective value as a slave. He has no value now— the neoliberal era has robbed them of it. Men are superfluous in all realms, having been replaced by transcendent ideas and technology, and it is no wonder he is, through contraception, abortion, and drug inundation, being exterminated. No one would want these people—the meth, coke, and booze addicts—in their houses. No one could derive any use for them. They exist, in a very real sense, solely as something for coastal elites to write books about. If this is all the poor are worth, then Dignity is a fine book. If the poor are worth anything more, then Dignity is not enough.